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Tens of thousands are suffering horrific abuse in Tigray – if "Global Britain" means anything, the government must act

4 min read

When the FCO and DFID were merged last year, we heard how putting diplomacy and development under one roof would enhance conflict resolution.

When the FCO and DFID were merged last year, we heard how putting diplomacy and development under one roof would enhance conflict resolution. In the Integrated Review, published last week, the Government set out how its new conflict resolution centre would be part of its approach to make Global Britain a force for good. The current situation in Ethiopia presents the opportunity to demonstrate to the world how the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office can step up to a crisis. So, why then, is this government failing to take efficient action as tens of thousands suffer horrific abuses in the country of the UK’s largest bilateral aid programme? 

In response to mounting concerns over the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, our Committee held a one-off evidence session on the humanitarian situation there. We heard from World Vision and the UN World Food Programme, with witnesses dialling in from Ethiopia, as well as from Minister Duddridge. It is clear from their evidence that the situation is dire.

The people of Tigray are facing a food and nutrition crisis because resources are just not reaching enough of them. Access for humanitarian assistance is massively disrupted, and locust swarms have obliterated farmers’ fields. Fortunately, limited deliveries of food are gradually being permitted in Tigray, and NGOs have now reached 1.2 million people with food. But the situation remains bleak and a greater response – backed up by sufficient funding – is needed.  

Limited funding is also contributing to safety concerns for NGOs operating in Tigray. We heard how a lack of satellite phones is leading to safety and security concerns of personnel. The lack of communication is also hindering coordination among aid groups, which is crucial when operating in an environment pulled apart by political unrest and conflict.   

Last week, Channel 4 News and Sky News shone a light on horrific instances of rape being used as a weapon of war, parents being forced to watch their children being killed and tens of thousands taking refuge in schools having lost all of their belongings. The courage of these people cannot be underestimated: they have faced – and continue to face – such horrific trauma. 

These atrocious crimes are not happening under the cover of darkness. They are not happening in secret and away from the eyes of the world. NGOs and aid organisations have struggled for months with poor telecommunications yet carry on because they know the people of Tigray need help. Governments must also step up and find a solution to the conflict. 

Minister Duddridge proudly told our Committee last week that Ethiopia is the largest bilateral aid programme for the UK. Yet despite calling the situation in Tigray “grim”, the Minister’s responses on the UK’s involvement to help end the conflict were unsatisfactory. When thousands of people are dying and suffering some of the most horrific abuses we can imagine, the UK should be at the forefront of seeking an urgent diplomatic resolution to the crisis to end the conflict and make sure that vital humanitarian supplies reach those who need them most. 

As Ethiopia is the UK’s largest bilateral aid programme, with assurances given to our Committee that Ethiopia will remain a significant aid beneficiary even when the aid cuts are unveiled, surely we have more invested to find a lasting solution? The cost of our inaction is potentially disastrous for the broader region, with the likely spread of instability throughout East Africa, undoing decades of development progress. 

We are yet to hear how deep the aid cuts will be for Ethiopia. But the case for emergency relief – irrespective of Whitehall paper pushing and counting the pennies – is abundantly clear. This is a fast escalating humanitarian catastrophe. This is a textbook example of what UK aid was designed to deliver and still can with the right political will. 

It is time the FCDO steps up and proves its worth: combining the UK’s diplomatic clout and the humanitarian function to provide emergency assistance and help find a solution before it’s too late.  

Sarah Champion is Chair of the International Development Select Committee

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